Page last updated at 21:24 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

Minister 'backs adviser autonomy'

Lord Drayson
Lord Drayson has declined to say whether sacking Prof Nutt was correct

The government is set to produce guidelines to ensure the independence of its scientific advisers, Science Minister Lord Drayson has said.

The pledge came as a group of senior academics demanded reassurances after the chief drugs adviser was sacked.

Lord Drayson told the Times the home secretary caused "serious concern" among scientists when Prof David Nutt was dismissed for criticising policy.

Clarified rules for advisers would be issued by Christmas, he said.

'Apology call'

A statement from the academics was sent to government officials and ministers, and calls for them to back their academic freedom and independence and to properly consider their advice.

It says advisers should be protected from political interference and disagreement with policy should not be used as grounds for criticism or dismissal.

Professor David Nutt
Professor Nutt was sacked from his job as drugs adviser

Lord Drayson said: "These ideas about how we can further clarify the rules of engagement between government and scientists are very helpful."

Prof Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was sacked on Friday after using a lecture to say that cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

Two drugs advisory panel members also quit in protest at the sacking.

In a statement to MPs, Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the reason for sacking Prof Nutt was not the work of the council, but because of "his failure to recognise that... his role is to advise rather than criticise".

In a leaked e-mail published on Tuesday, Lord Drayson was quoted as saying Mr Johnson's decision to remove Prof Nutt without consulting him was a "big mistake" that left him "pretty appalled".

Prof Nutt deserves an apology for the damage done to his reputation. Only then can a line be drawn under this affair
Evan Harris

Lord Drayson, who had been in Japan at the time the row broke out, later said he had not been fully apprised of the situation.

In the Times, he refused to be drawn on whether the sacking had been correct.

But said in future it was "very important" that both he and the government's chief scientific adviser should be consulted over such a situation.

"If I had been asked by the home secretary before he took that decision I would have said that a decision to dismiss Professor Nutt would have caused serious concern," he said.

Lib Dem science spokesman Evan Harris welcomed Lord Drayson's comments on a code of practice but said scientists "still want recognition that the sacking itself was unjustified".

He added: "Prof Nutt deserves an apology for the damage done to his reputation. Only then can a line be drawn under this affair."

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